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Music and Text: Critical Inquiries.

THIS BOOK arose out of a symposium at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire) in 1988. Five of the fourteen contributors were professors of comparative literature which, according to a book quoted by the editor in his Preface, demands an interdisciplinary approach that brings together all 'human sciences' under a late-twentieth-century overview called simply 'theory' (p. xiii). But seven were professors of music, for whom 'theory' tends to mean something much older.

It is not surpising that musical scholarship in the United States, looking to Germany rather than France, and concerned chiefly with technical matters, should be a late-comer to this modern 'theory', but the first thing to emerge from this book is that musicology is now a flourishing academic discipline, inclined to ignore non-specialists, whose rights I feel compelled to defend. Musical studies are a specialized field; musical scholarshipo is more so, and musicology most of all. The contributors to Music and Text are perhaps insufficiently aware that even professionally trained musicians don't necessarily want or need to read words about music. What can be read in a score needs putting into sounds, not words, and harmonic analysis isn't necessarily profitable either to people who can read the score or people who can't. Serious western music is enjoyable and intelligence to far more listeners than can understand harmonic analysis, a procedure that defines elements of a work and relationships among them which when the music is performed, are capable of evoking appropriate responses without being defined. Therefore that specialized way of using words about music isn't the only kind of music criticism, nor the only aim of academic musical education, not perhaps the best use of musical scholarship. This is relevant to much of the book, perhaps most notably to the feminist and deconstructive study of Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben by Ruth Solie. Given that everyone finds the words, by the poet Chamisso, unacceptable, what was Solie's aim as a music critic, in deploying detailed harmonic analysis? Was it to 'defend the indefensible', as one fellow-contributor says (p. 92)? Or to attack it--as White suggests (pp. 300-1) and I thought--until I began to understand how musicologists view ideology.

The practical limitations of harmonic analysis are recognized only in 'Chord and discourse: listening through the written word' by Peter Rabinowitz (comparative literature), who illustrates its bearing on sonata form. For some, this is a structure of themes; for others, of key-relations. (This is familiar, and Rainowitz cities evidence about it.) He says, perhaps too boldly, that the two kinds of listeners' responses are 'mutually incompatible' and 'each takes as the figure what the other takes as ground' (p. 51).

It must be admitted that harmonic analysis, chiefly of standard works, is here embedded in scholarly and noticeably well-written essays; e.g., 'Musical analysis as stage direction' by David Lewin, which (though its title seems so general) takes only a few bars of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, and shows that their harmonic relations have a specfic dramatic importance, and thus a practical use in directing a singer-actor playing the Count. Lawrence Kramer writes well on Haydn's Creation, especially its rendering of Chaos and the coming of light; (but also its text, for Kramer is a professor of comparative literature as well as a musicologist). The contributions of Anthony Newcomb, Thomas Grey, Ellen Rosand are all interesting even to a non-musicologist, and I shall return to them.

Only two contributors deal with recent music. Charles Hamm, an academic expert on popular music, presents a strange case-history about a song from Lionel Richie's album 'All Night Long' (Motown, ca. 1980) and its reception among black South Aficans. The other, Claudia Stanger, writes on a song-cycle The Flower-Fed Buffaloes by a composer John Harbison; the essay is entitled 'The semiotic elements of a multiplanar discourse' and is over-ambitious: by choosing to champion Harbison's very unusual composition, Stanger is led to bring to bear on music two contemporary accounts of language, that need to be kept apart.

Saussure, Hjelmslev, Levi-Strauss, Greimas, Derrida all figure in Stanger's pages. Other contributors intriduce (e.g.) Propp, Todorov, Barthes, because they find that structuralist narrative theory has a place in understanding extended musical works; see Rabinowitz (pp. 49-50) and Grey (notably p. 96). (Earlier critics, who described music more empirically, found drama, now elbowed out.) Newcomb uses narrative theory as the basis for finding in Mahler's Ninth Symphony a detailed spiritual biography of an imaginary protagonist, told by the music as seen (and I don't mean heard) through Newcomb's harmonic analysis; he shows imagination, taste and literary knowledge, but not enough awareness of using technical detail to generate fiction.

Not surprinsingly, some structural principles--contrast, closure, convention in general--can be seen at work more clearly in music than in narrative. This implies especially to contrast, as Stanger quite fails to rocognize, and Newcomb forgets, but Brown, I think gets it right (pp. 79-80); he also deals with closure (or cadence, pp. 77-8). Brown's essay, comparing literary modernism to atonal composition, is very acute about the 'language' of music. Convention is tackled head-on and well by Rosand ('Operate madness'); less successfully by Neubauer in 'Music and literature; the institutional dimensions'; and obliquely by Alphers, who barely touches on music in 'Lyrical modes'. Metaphor is a frequent topic, treated loosely not only by Stagner, but also by Newcomb (p. 127), Kramer (p. 161) and Grey. The latter in 'Iamge, narrative and idea' confidently regards these as three 'metaphorical modes' found in his interesting selection of writings on Beethoven by nineteenth-century critics.

A strange feature of the book is the last and longest contribution, by Hayden White, and interdisciplinary histrian, who comments in some detail on all the others (in a manner the blurb calls 'magisterial'), thus unsurping the function of the editor--without seeming to know much about music. He offends not only by his doctrinaire approach as a historicizing neo-Marxist but by pompous verbiage and rambling arguments (pp. 293, 297) about 'narrativization' and 'ideologization', quite irrelevant to music; also by his contemptuous abuse of the Romantics (pp. 296, 298, 311) and his scorn for music critics who (as their calling requires) show imaginative sympathy with Romantic attitudes, e.g. (p. 310) Edward Cone, who writes on the conventions of Lieder, and Newcomb (pp. 297-8).

White introduces technical terms from linguistic poetics, glossematics, rhetoric, Greimassin semiotics, all frequently and superficially employed in literary theory, but he doesn't document any systematic technical semiotic inquiries into music. One urgent question, I suggest, is whether western music can or should be viewed as 'text', as White does without comment at pp. 296, 316. Only Neubauer views it so (e.g. 9. 13). For the other contributors, the terms 'music' and 'text' simply contrast, as in the title and in common parlance. To view music as 'discourse', as Stanger does throughout, and White on pp. 295, 304, doesn't present the same difficulties, but isn't trouble-free either.

When White (following whom?) adapts Hjelmslev's concept 'the substance of the content' to signify a hidden content 'latent' (i.e., unconscious) in a text (pp. 304, 307), or when he offers a dissertion on power (pp. 313-4), to supplement Lewin's view of the Count in Figaro, he is intesresting, but again high-handed and not close to music. It appears from Rabinowitz's bibliographical note (p. 40) that musicologists have had their own controversy about the 'formalism' of harmonic analysis; if White could have written a fair and informed review of that, he would have justified his place in the book.

The volume is well produced. Musical illsutrations, which are not the only ones, occupy roughly forty of it pages. There is a rather sketchy index.
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Author:Meidner, Olga McDonald
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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